Author of The Other America Urges Push To Abolish Poverty
Washington--The author and social activist Michael Harrington, whose ideas helped launch the war on poverty more than two decades ago, was on Capitol Hill last week warning that current economic and social trends may produce a "separate but unequal" society in America.
Casting himself in the role of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who forecast doom and prescribed unpopular remedies, Mr. Harrington said that unless major changes were made in the nation's occupational and income structures, poverty would affect the future development of more and more children.
"There is no cheap 'workfare' way to deal with fundamental structures of inequality," he told the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. "We have to ask, 'Is our aim to move welfare mothers off the public rolls into poverty jobs, or is it to abolish poverty?"'
Others testifying at the hearing, which commemorated the 25th anniversary of Mr. Harrington's landmark study of poverty, The Other America, added evidence to support his contention that, although the face of poverty is changing, its impact may be deepening.
Mr. Harrington noted that his book is treated today as an honored prophecy, but said it was seen originally as a "jeremiad which scandalized the comfortable assumptions of that time."
"I believe we need the spirit of Jeremiah again," he maintained.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and the committee's chairman, said that the publication of The Other America in 1962 had moved and motivated many citizens, including his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
At the hearing, Mr. Harrington tried again to sound the battle cry for concerted action.
Poverty Gap Widens
At the end of 1986, census figures showed that the gap between the richest and poorest Americans was the widest it had been since the federal government began recording such statistics in 1947, said the author, now professor of political science at the City University of New York.
Mary Jo Bane, director of the Center for Health and Human Resources Policy at Harvard University, said it was a mistake to think of the more than 32 million poor Americans as primarily black welfare mothers living in inner-city ghettos. Correcting that false stereotype, she said, would be a crucial step in staging an attack on poverty.
Thirty percent of the poor live in rural areas, Ms. Bane said. Among the 70 percent who live in urban areas, only 40 percent are in large, central cities, and only 7 percent of that figure actually live in ghettos.
Ms. Bane and Mr. Harrington also challenged the "comfortable assumption" that all poor are on welfare. In fact, they said, welfare serves only 30 percent of the poor, and many below the official poverty line are the so-called working poor.
Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit organization, said there were more than 2- million poor children living in families that include a worker who is employed full time, yet remain below the poverty level.
Panelists also noted that two-thirds of the poor are white, despite the common assumption that poverty is a "black" problem. And two-thirds of the homeless population, they said, falls outside the stereotypical category of the mentally or emotionally handicapped. They are simply people who cannot afford housing, the panelists said.
Raise Wages, Benefits
"We cannot stand to look the children of homeless families in the face," said Mr. Harrington, "for if we did, we might have to commit resources to housing, instead of just sympathizing with odd people."
Witnesses said that preventive programs such as Head Start, Chapter 1, and welfare-to-work proposals can be effective and should be expanded. But such programs alone are not likely to have a significant impact on poverty rates, they said.
Making large inroads on the problem of poverty, Mr. Greenstein said, generally results from lowering the unemployment rate, raising wages, expanding health-care and other benefits, and increasing child-support payments.
Such measures also increase the security of the 60 percent of Americans who are middle class, making them both economically and politically sound, Mr. Harrington added.
Ruth Messinger, a city councilman from New York City, where she said two out of every five children are poor, discounted the promise of the new, highly touted service-industry jobs. The salary scales for many of them, she noted, are often too low to move a family out of poverty, and they rarely include health insurance.
"The generation that is to pay our Social Security tomorrow," Ms. Messinger said, "needs day care, education, job training, wage parity, health care, and shelter services now."
Vol. 07, Issue 06